Hello. This week’s notes might be my most ambitious yet – it’s certainly been the hardest to write, and it’s had me lost in my thoughts a lot, but hopefully it makes for an interesting read. Broadly it covers the importance of afrofuturism, the total freedom that can created in art and music, and how escape and release are fundamental to our mental health. I’m incredibly conscious of being a white man writing about black history – and even more so in the areas where I’ve spoken about my personal experiences in needing escape and release. Hopefully you’ll see that what I’ve written is respectful, thoughtful, and that I’ve tried to avoid cultural misappropriation. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes, but hopefully I’ve avoided what Drexciya’s James Stinson called ‘caucasian persuasion
I’ve been interested in afrofuturism since hearing Theo Parrish play Sun Ra’s That’s How I Feel early one morning in a dank club in Hackney Wick about a decade ago. Looking back now, most of the times I’ve seen Parrish play, there’s been undertones and overtones of afrofuturism in almost all of the music that he plays, but my breadth of understanding never went much further than Sun Ra, and I had almost zero cultural or historical context beyond knowing that Sun Ra talked of being an alien from Saturn. After hearing him play That’s How I Feel, I started listening to more and more Arkestra. The more I listened, the more I read, and the more I became interested in the world that he had created. Sun Ra was different. Then a few years ago I started reading more and more books and essays on afrofuturism, spiritualism, and cosmology in music and culture. Slowly threads and connections started to appear in my head, and I could start to understand what linked Sun Ra and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, to Drexciya and Afrika Bambaataa, to Beyonce and Janelle Monae.
Each of those artists (and of course many more, across all art forms, not just music) used symbols, language, visuals, and myths in order to create different visions of the future. They created new worlds. They were all (and are) part of the afrofuturist philosophy and culture. While afrofuturism has been in existence for close to 200 years (Martin Delany is broadly thought to have been the first author to introduce afrofuturism into literature in the late 19th century), it was Octavia Butler and Sun Ra that really expanded the universe in the 60s and 70s. Then in the 1990s, cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term ‘afrofuturism’ in an essay and series of interviews that were focused on understanding more about black science fiction. Dery stated; “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth – century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might, for want of a better term, be called Afro futurism”.
While that explains what afrofuturism is, it doesn’t explain where it came from, or why it is. In the late 90s Jeff Mills explained with absolute clarity that “if you are Afro American and you’re in a country where your relatives were not able to practice the culture where they were from – because they were slaves brought over from Africa – you adapt in other ways, you recreate your universe, it was done a long time ago out of necessity to stay sane in an insane world”. Delany, Butler, Sun Ra, George Clinton, Alice Coltrane – these were artists creating a new world because they were oppressed, abused, and marginalised in their old world.
Black culture and history was simply erased, and then forbidden. In his book A Pure And Solar World, Paul Youngquist talks about how through the horrific slave trade, “America took aliens into its midst”, and that America is “not their home. Music, the sound ship of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, will become the means of transporting them, mass transit for aliens seeking other climes and brighter futures”. The artists creating new worlds were doing so because their old one was destroyed, and their current one was filled with discrimination and persecution. At the same time I was reading Youngquist’s book on Sun Ra, I was also reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be An Antiracist.
Reading both books in parallel was an intense but important education (and by accident rather than by design). Kendi’s book gives a huge amount of historical context as to the world that Sun Ra was born into – and the world he was escaping by his own means. Sun Ra talks about the necessity to create a new space and a new future, because colonisation and the horrific American slave trade took African’s and made them aliens. At the same time, Kendi explains the horrendous history of how colonisation and the slave trade put nations and continents back decades – if not centuries – in terms of development. Despite having their culture and history erased, artists like Sun Ra and Octavia Butler still pushed forwards to create something better.
Afrofuturism paints an exciting future for us all – and its increasing popularity and adoption into the mainstream (such as Beyonce’s Lemonade, or the film Black Panther) means that its appeal is growing. Which opens more eyes to the possibilities of the future, and opens more doors to culturally diverse alternative futures to be imagined (and created). These things will push not only culture along, but it will push our species along too. The shameful part is that this could’ve happened centuries ago.
When we look to the impact that Afrofuturism has had, it has been massively far-reaching and enduring. Sun Ra, Octavia Butler and the other first wave of afrofuturists not only created the notion of creating a new space, but then inspired waves and waves of new artists to take up the mantle too – with each generation the waves grow, providing hope, optimism, and escape.
Lee Scratch Perry, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Erykah Badu, 4hero, Janet Jackson (never forget the video for Scream), Beverly Glenn-Copeland, UR, Moodymann, Missy Elliot, Jeff Mills, Beyonce, Solange, Hieroglyphic Being, Theo, Actress, Ras G, Janelle Monae, Shabaka Hutchings, Batu, Flying Lotus… There is now an incredibly rich canon of afrofuturism that stretches back nearly 200 years (and this show on worldwide.fm from the excellent Laani shows a lot of that rich canon). But its impact is by no means limited to music; and its impact can be felt in architecture and design, art, fashion. There are also an increasing number of black women shaping afrofuturism too, as outlined in this excellent article from Jonita Davis.
What’s exciting is how those artists continue to develop the myths and narrative. Drexciya, for example, adapted an afrofuturist narrative to incorporate the horrific stories of the middle passage, and built a world that draws parallels with Atlantis (this documentary on Drexciya and afrofuturism is excellent). Drexciya, like their predecessors, realised that myth was more important than reality. They knew that our innate human desire is to find meaning and belonging, and that myths create a vehicle for telling stories that give meaning, and give belonging. As Joseph Campbell famously said; “every myth is psychologically symbolic – it’s narratives and images are to be read, therefore not literally, but as metaphors”. Afrofuturism is a way to tell stories about the future, without a past, and as Tola Onanuga writes, it puts black people “at the centre of their own narratives, allowing them to tell their stories on their own terms”.
The desired result of the afrofuturist philosophy, however, is to create “total freedom”, as Sun Ra would put it. He saw that the route to true societal change could only come from culture, and could never come from politics. Politics was a rotten orchard, and planting a different type of tree would only result it in that tree eventually rotting too. It didn’t need a new approach, it needed a whole new frame of reference. A new form of civilisation. Culture, politics, and society are all hyper-objects – they’re almost too big for us to totally comprehend, and Sun Ra knew that to drive real change, you had to demonstrate mastery of whatever it was you were trying to change. But rather than dedicate his life to the study of the existing world, he dedicated it to building an entirely new one, outside of the world that existed. He would go on to create an entirely new world, language, genesis story, values system, and series of myths that helped show people the endless possibilities of being liberated from the rotten orchard.
This is a true but forceful act of peaceful protest – by creating a new world in this way, the rules change and the world becomes impenetrable to ‘outsiders’ (those who were ‘insiders’ in the old world). This turning of the tables creates an intense energy and sense of empowerment for those that once were outsiders. It provides “total freedom”, and a genuine space and escape. If you’re from a marginalised group, and you exist in a marginalised part of society, where you don’t find yourself belonging to the dominant culture, then finding or creating alternative worlds are your only choice.
We see the same on dancefloors around the world too. In an essay a few weeks in Resident Advisor, I read this utterly beautiful account of a dancefloor epiphany; “When we are dancing, our melanin boldly takes up space without any shame. The dancefloor becomes a safe space to break free from what goes on in our everyday life. We are surrounded by love from fellow dancers. A wordless understanding of “I see you and you matter” is shared by all who come to this space”. That space is an alternative from the mainstream. It’s a safe space in every sense, and it’s critically important to giving people meaning, and a sense of belonging. For a few hours, it provides total freedom.
This desire – no, necessity – for total freedom is something I experienced growing up too. Now, I’m by no means comparing my life with those that have (and continue to) experience intense discrimination, abuse, and marginalisation, but instead want to share my personal feelings as a way of bringing us back to the potential that this sense of total freedom holds. I am incredibly lucky, I have a good life, a wonderful family, and I get to spend my days doing things that I love. But still, even I need escape and a sense of total freedom sometimes. It isn’t about escaping my life, but more about exorcising the negativity that I internalise. That escape provides a release valve – one that I’ve probably always undervalued until the UK lockdown took it away. I’m an intensely optimistic person, but that’s not because I’m naive or have limited critical faculties, but because I internalise a lot of the anger, frustration, and pain I feel and try to turn it into positive energy. What remains is what is released when I can feel the pressure of bass frequencies on my chest, in a dark dank basement. The release creates a wave of endorphins and serotonin, that gives the moment an almost celestial feeling. The dancefloor does the final bit of heavy lifting on turning the remnant sadness, anger and pain that I feel into something positive.
That universal vibration is where I find my answers. The music and people littered with symbols, myths, tone, and unspoken language that gives me a sense of belonging and a sense of total freedom from negativity. Music is a healer.
Darkness and light both play an incredibly important role in creating that sense of total freedom – music can be oppressively heavy, but that sense of submission to low frequencies can feel like a release just as much as lightness in music can. What I’ve tried to do with this week’s mixtape is try to recreate that sense of dark and light, while telling a afrofuturist story too. The artists aren’t all strictly afrofuturist artists – there are a handful of white artists that have been heavily influenced by afrofuturism – but for the majority, the music is from the canon. The programming should convey a three part narrative; walking up on the morning of a space flight, filled with pensive excitement for what is ahead, the intense and overpowering feeling of take-off, and the final section should feel like floating in space, gravity-less, in total freedom, like a celestial being.
There are moments of intense light and darkness, and rhythmic changes create drama and intensity. I’ve borrowed heavily from Sun Ra, who used to open shows “with a chaos of sounds that cleared the air for the music to come. Horns squeal, drums thump, the bass growls, and the piano piles chord on chord”. If you’ve read this far, all I ask is that you properly listen to the mixtape. Sitting down, truly listening. You’ve taken the effort to read this much ramble, and I thank you for that, but I promise that the mixtape is far greater than this essay. Turn on, tune in, drop out.
Now, for my final – and hopefully optimistic – point; all outsiders need escape and release. The pressures of a world not designed for you can grow and grow – and that’s why we find solace in outsider environments. More importantly though, that escape can be more than just a release valve. That escape can become a new world, a new space not only for you, but for people just like you. Changing the world through politics is hard – when the orchard is so rotten – but through culture we can reimagine not only the land that the orchard is on, but the planet it’s on too. Myths are more important than history – as history is always the perspective of those in the dominant culture, and not always reflective of reality. Myths help us tell stories that cross generations, languages, borders. Myths help create culture, which creates belonging. Belonging gives us strength, and strength gives us power to find freedom.
Let’s end on a classic from Herman Poole Blount (AKA Sun Ra); “If you’re not mad at the world you don’t have what it takes. This planet is like a prison.”